The National Catholic Review

Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, is a prolific and forceful writer with wide-ranging interests in the classics, literature, jurisprudence, politics, feminist theory, economics and international development. But her primary orientation is ethical, motivated largely by her years of experience with the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki, an international development agency connected with the United Nations. Nussbaum has also collaborated on research with Amartya Sena, a Nobel prize-winning economist. The major concern of Sex and Social Justice is the international status of women, illustrated with stories and anecdotes drawn mostly from India and Bangladesh. These hooks into particularity compel readers to recognize that academic theories about society, gender and justice have effects in the real world. Beyond this focus, these previously published essays recapitulate Nussbaum’s essential philosophical approach.

That approach is complex, original, provocative, not always fully integrated, and of great relevance to contemporary Roman Catholic ethical and social thought. A major project for Catholic social ethics is to rebuild natural law in an era in which normative constructions of morality are under heavy attack from postmodern cultural relativism, as well as the individualism that has pervaded U.S. political traditions almost from their inception. Natural law theory is rooted in Aquinas and traces back in some ways to Aristotle. It holds that human beings share certain basic characteristics and experiences that are divinely created, recognizable by reason, indicative of happiness and part of the good life for human beings. Shared values and norms can and should guide human conduct and social organization. Morality and justice are not decided by individuals, invented by societies or prescribed arbitrarily by authorities, whether religious or secular. They derive in some fundamental sense from what it means to be human, an inviolable individual and an intrinsically social being, oriented ultimately to God.

This theory has fallen on hard times. Natural law tradition has typically maintained that basic human nature and its requirements should be evident to all reasonable persons. But many now object that natural law ideas were always essentially religious in nature (hence not applicable outside the fold), or that what seems natural is simply the result of tyrannical social conditioning. Familiar examples of discredited natural law teachings are the inferiority of women, the innate sinfulness of homosexuals, the primacy of procreation in justifying sex, the acceptability of slavery and the immorality of lending money at interest. The most conspicuous alternative to natural law, in both philosophy and popular culture, is a laissez-faire combination of trendy postmodern deconstruction and old-fashioned liberal individualism. We will not criticize other cultures or persons, as long as their choices don’t impinge noticeably on us.

John Paul II isn’t happy with this turn, and neither is Martha Nussbaum. Their reasons, of course, are not exactly the same. The pope wants a renewal of biblical spirituality and a return to traditional sexual norms. Martha Nussbaum is skeptical about anything that smells of metaphysics, sees religion mostly as a repressive force and advocates more sexual freedom for women and gays. Where Catholic natural law tradition and Nussbaum converge in important ways, however, is in their hostility to relativism, their suspicion of first world political agendas, their advocacy for the poor and most especially their conviction that there are certain basic requirements of human flourishing that any decent society ought to meet.

Nussbaum sees herself as both a liberal and an Aristotelian. Her brand of liberalism derives from Kant’s requirements of equality and equal respect and places a high emphasis on critical reason. From Aristotle she takes the conviction that human beings have certain basic needs and capabilities, preconditions of happiness and well-being. These include: life; health and bodily integrity; senses, imagination, thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation (relationship to others, including the social bases of self-respect and dignity); relationship to other species; play; and political and material control over one’s environment. An important contribution is Nussbaum’s insistence that the emotions are not irrational passions, but connections to others that nuance and give texture to the moral life. Although societies cannot ensure that persons will realize their capabilities, they should at least make available the basic conditions for doing so. Unlike many liberal philosophers, Nussbaum believes it is not only possible but necessary to talk about universal obligations, living a life that is truly human and about specific types of social organization that are or are not compatible with human dignity.

Nussbaum’s position diverges from Catholic natural law in the consistent priority she gives to autonomy, freedom and the ability to choose and fashion a life. She rightly decries cultural subordination of women’s welfare to familial, social or religious interests. But she less frequently examines how her value of noninstrumental respect for individuals could be enhanced by more attention to social participation and responsibility, so important in non-Western cultures. Catholic social tradition confirms the insight that norms like "solidarity," the "common good" and "civil society" are needed to complete and effectuate the equality, respect and self-determination necessary to human dignity. Sociality and social institutions are just as essential to a good society as individuality and free choice.

The book is comprised of 15 essays in two parts, Justice and Sex. The major topics covered are women’s rights internationally, lesbian and gay rights and the meaning and value of sexual experience. If Nussbaum does not see herself as a natural law theorist, that is especially true on matters sexual. Nature in her scheme doesn’t provide much of a norm for sexual morality, though capabilities do. Nussbaum tends to interpret needs and capabilities having to do with sex a bit lopsidedly in terms of privacy, autonomy and civil rights, and to neglect procreation and parenthood in favor of sexual desire, pleasure and reciprocity. Still, she shares the natural law concern for objective moral values, norms and judgments, and the recent tradition’s investment in a more historically conscious and intercultural approach to objectivity.

Nussbaum’s chapter on what it concretely means to objectify someone else could be greatly helpful to Catholic sexual teaching. Often natural law claims about sexual morality are defended on the ground that certain kinds of sexual acts are wrong because they intrinsically objectify oneself or one’s sexual partner. Indeed, objectification sometimes seems a catch-all category for anything that has been deemed by traditional teaching to be sin. But the accusation is more often asserted than elucidated, and just as often runs into the counter-assertion by those who practice a condemned behavior that they do not find it objectifying at all. Nussbaum reflects on instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership and denial of subjectivity as possible measures of objectification. She challenges those who use this term to be careful, precise and practical in their meaning, and to provide criteria by which objectification can be either confirmed or denied.

This one example illustrates the common sense, rigorousness, concreteness and morally urgent nature of Nussbaum’s writing. Just because she is visibly impatient with entrenched assumptions about morality and society, while still insisting that certain things are simply wrong, she is a wonderful interlocutor for Catholic moral theologians and others interested in rehabilitating objective morality in a postmodern era.

Lisa Sowle Cahill is a professor of theology at Boston College.